Opinion | Energy & Environment

Consensus forming for ambitious climate goal: Net zero pollution

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The first step in achieving a goal is setting a target. For the challenge of climate change, congressional leaders are increasingly finding consensus around a mark of zero - that is, net-zero climate pollution.  

Zero does not usually suggest bold and decisive action, but in the language of the climate crisis, "zero" equals ambition and conveys a strong sense of urgency. 

Zero, as in "net-zero," means taking as much carbon out of the atmosphere as we put into it, a vital step towards averting the most catastrophic effects of climate change. 

In Washington, D.C., prominent members in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are quickly coalescing behind this ambitious goal of achieving net-zero by 2050. 

Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a longtime environmental champion, has introduced the "Clean Economy Act," which gives EPA authority to set and pursue a net-zero goal. 

Carper recognizes that climate change is the biggest threat we face and that it will not be addressed without strong U.S. leadership. While aggressive pollution reductions are the core goal of the bill, the measure has growing support because it will boost clean energy, create good-paying jobs, promote technology innovation, and protect public health. 

Last fall, Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), a leading Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, House Natural Resources Committee, and the House's Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, was joined by over 150 colleagues in putting forward the "100% Clean Economy Act." 

Rep. Frank Pallone, chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, also recently introduced an important discussion draft of the first comprehensive climate bill from an authorizing committee in 10 years. Both bills target a 100 percent clean economy by 2050.

Both chambers of Congress, town halls, corporate boardrooms, social media feeds, and presidential candidates are realizing that we are long past the time to take action and that any serious approach to fighting climate change must be aimed at achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2050 at the latest. 

 The push for net-zero was recently dubbed "World War Zero" as part of a new campaign for which former Secretary of State John Kerry has enlisted an impressive, bipartisan cast of leaders from John Kasich to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Bill Clinton. 

These leaders are joining this push for net-zero because the need to take climate action is growing more urgent by the day. Recent reports have told us that global carbon emissions will again hit a record high in 2019, and for every year we see this rise, we know that it will take that much more effort to reach net-zero. We can't afford to wait.

Despite this challenge, it's not just the new legislative activity that gives cause for optimism.  Clean energy sources such as solar and wind, along with lithium-ion batteries for energy storage, have dropped significantly in cost.

Innovations promise to transform transportation and industry, and many of the technologies we need to get on the path to net-zero exist today. What's more, new means of capturing and storing carbon are being developed and demonstrated, to make them cost-effective in the future.

Private sector leadership is ramping up as well. In September, a diverse cohort of 87 companies representing more than four million employees and headquartered in 27 countries committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. Prominent U.S. companies, including major utilities such as DTE, Duke Energy, and Xcel Energy, have also stepped up with their net-zero plans.  

While serious federal climate action in the U.S. will remain very unlikely under the Trump administration, the proliferation of net-zero bills and commitments is creating a surge of momentum, and fresh energy for and growing consensus around an ambitious and achievable goal: getting to zero.  

Derek Walker is the vice president for U.S. Climate at Environmental Defense Fund.

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